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Dust Bowl ESS Analysis

Page history last edited by Sharon Dressel 8 years, 11 months ago

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Click here for Dust Bowl Discussion





Problem Statement: 

The population of the American Southwest relies heavily on the Ogallala Aquifer as a primary water source, but water levels continue to decline. In the event of a prolonged drought affecting the area, what can scientists, farmers, and citizens do to effectively manage the limited water resources and avoid serious water shortages and dust bowl conditions in the area?


Opening Statement:

The Dust Bowl of the 1930s had serious effects on the atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, and lithosphere. The consequences of a second dust bowl would be similar but magnified because the region supplies more people with water and crops than ever before. In addition, with increasing temperatures predicted well into the future for the area, the climate could change to include permanent or very long term drought conditions, as shown in the following graphic.





Recommendations/Possible Solutions:

  • Farmers can utilize new irrigation technologies such as subsurface drip irrigation (SDI) and automatic irrigation systems that employ sensors to determine times when plant leaves require water and avoid overwatering. This will reduce the negative effects that overpumping of groundwater resources has on ecosystems that depend on groundwater, e.g. estuaries, wetlands, riparian ecosystems.
  • Implement a new system to unify and streamline the numerous programs that are currently in place to restore, maintain, and conserve groundwater. These programs are currently implemented on a state by state basis, by combining and consolidating their information and resources they will strengthen their efforts on monitoring and managing the groundwater use of the Ogallala Acquifer.
  • Citizens can install high efficiency water faucets, toilets, and shower heads.
  • Communities can educate populace on water-saving practices.
  • A federal–state cooperative conservation program that addresses targeted agricultural-related environmental concerns called CREP offers hope. One of the goals of this program is to reduce by 5 percent the Republican River and Ogallala Aquifer irrigation water used for agricultural purposes by enrolling 35,000 acres of land into the CREP and converting enrolled land to native grasses, trees, and other applicable vegetation. 
  • The CREP program protects millions of acres of topsoil from erosion by paying landowners annual rental payments or cost-share assistance so that they grow grasses and other vegetation instead of plowing their farmland. The contracts last between 10 to 15 years. These protective measures not only keep dust storms from forming, but also reduce water runoff and sedimentation, protecting groundwater.
  • Acreage enrolled in the CRP is planted with resource conserving covers to decrease dust storms and water runoff.
  • Farmers can plant crops in patterns that maximize water from irrigation sources. 
  • Farmers can rotate out different crops that are less water intensive.  Cotton and sorghum "produce oil" and take less water than corn, wheat, and cattle/livestock. 
  • A > E 

         Cloud seeding, while controversial, is a potential solution to the lack of rain.  Possible techniques include inserting ice particles or inserting   

          water droplets in warm clouds that have the potential to rise and become larger droplets    







An excessively dry lithosphere was easily lifted by normal winds into the atmosphere, causing changes in weather patterns.

The dust formed large clouds, which blocked sunlight and further impacted weather conditions.

Dust in the air provided more substance for water molecules to cling to; as a result, the dust storms influenced weather conditions. However, precipitation may not have occurred in the area it was most needed, but rather downwind of that area.  

With more sediment in water sources, evaporation was reduced, leading to less water in the atmosphere. 

The area affected by the Dust Bowl is marked by a semi-arid climate.  It is believed that elevated sea temperatures and a change in the atmosphere known as El Nino further impacted/limited the amount of precipitation, exacerbating an already dry area.




Extreme amounts of dust put unprecedented amounts of contaminants into the atmosphere. This pollution can lead to respiratory complications for humans and animals in the affected area. Dust clouds could lead to bronchitis, ashtma, and chronic upper respiratory infections with effects being apparent for the long term. Complications will affect younger and older individuals more, as well as those already suffering from respiratory ailments.



Extreme amounts of dust in the atmosphere blocks out sunlight which leads to detrimental conditions for vegetation by not having sufficient sun to provide the energy needed for photosynthesis. A lower amount of vegetation equals a lesser food supply for both animals ands humans.



Dust fell into rivers, lakes, streams, and creeks, and wound up at shorelines. Some water sources became clogged or cloudy as a result; the shoreline took on a new shape and appearance. 

The addition of sediment caused a decrease in the water available for evaporation, leading to even drier conditions.

With a significant addition of sediment in water sources in a short period of time, the habitat of organisms changed faster than the organisms living in the hydrosphere could adapt. Some relocated. Others perished.  

Water patterns changed with the addition of sediment. The sediment influenced new formations along the banks and larger river deposits.



Excessive amounts of dust in the air will eventually settle into water sources, killing marine life that live in these waters as well as polluting drinking sources for animals and humans. Humans might be able to overcome this with our technology and water treatment plants, however animals will be at great risk.



Dust coated plants making photosynthesis and gas exchanges difficult. Plants suffered and some died.

Humans and other animals moved out of the area, possibly in hurry and without regard to further degradation of the soil.

With heavy particulates floating in the air, organisms likely experienced respiratory problems and even respiratory failures. As a result, some organisms died and others relocated. 

A reduction of oxygen-producing plants on land and algae in water reduced the amount of oxygen produced in the area. This altered the chemistry of the atmosphere and influenced changing weather patterns.  

A reduction of more vulnerable organisms (lower elements on the food chain) in the hydrosphere led to a reduction in the organisms that depended upon them. Such effects and consequences effectively represented natural selection. The reduction in more vulnerable organisms also influenced the chemistry of the water as it contained more decaying matter and less living matter.

Organisms that could not live in the dusty conditions relocated. Those organisms that depended upon the evacuees also left the area or perished. 

Dust coated plants and filled the lungs of animals, making photosynthesis and respiration difficult. Plants and animals suffered and some died.



Excessive use of land for farming depleted the soil of water and minerals. Plants would not grow effectively, so roots were not holding down the soil. Normal winds easily picked up topsoil and carried it into the atmosphere. Much lithosphere was relocated from croplands to shorelines.

The normal process of composition and decomposition (where animals and plants would grow and eventually decay, enriching the soil) did not proceed normally. Where soils would be enriched by this cycle, instead they were blown away.

Topsoil is the most valuable part of the lithosphere for farming. As topsoil was transported from croplands to shorelines, it no longer became available for farming. The land left behind was harder and lower in the valued minerals. As a result, it was more difficult to farm. 

This “blank slate” created the conditions for primary succession to occur. 

Dust removed from one area was deposited in other areas by wind patterns. Some of that dust ended up in cities and towns where it was not needed. Other dust ended up clogging rivers.   

An excessively dry lithosphere was easily lifted by normal winds into the atmosphere, causing changes in weather patterns. 

Dust fell into rivers, lakes, streams, and creeks, and wound up at shorelines. Some water sources became clogged or cloudy as a result; the shoreline took on a new shape and appearance.



As dust settled into surrounding areas, it changed the makeup of the soil. Once nutrient rich soil now is mixed with dust that contains little to no valuable minerals. This new soil makeup affects local vegetation by providing less than ideal conditions. Lower vegetation levels means less food sources for animals and humans inhabiting the area.



Dust Affecting Soil



Dust Affecting Respiratory Conditions



Environmental Effects of Groundwater Depletion



Crop Rotation as a Possible Solution



Purposeful Planting to Maximize Irrigation



Cloud Seeding as a Possible Solution



El Nino as Cause of Dust Bowl in 1930's




Sea Surface Temperatures' Role in Creating Dust Bowl





Comments (12)

Jennifer Henson said

at 3:07 pm on Oct 23, 2011

My question at this point after all our analysis and back and forth is--will all these efforts toward conversation WORK? How willing will people be to make serious and drastic changes in their water use? I can imagine people moving to other parts of the country instead, creating problems of overpopulation and overuse of resources in those new areas. In addition, the continued need for new crops for an increasing human population around the world may lead to the need for new ways to farm areas that weren't previously farmable--such as mountaintops or oceans. In addition, I think the need for continuing education on human population growth will be necessary for humans to effectively manage limited resources. We may even need to start exploring the option of colonizing another planet. (As if that were an option!)

Sharon Dressel said

at 6:08 pm on Oct 23, 2011

I really like two of the points you mentioned in your comment. First, you wonder if people will willingly make changes in their water use? I have to say, in my own household, we have done that for our outdoor behaviors (i.e. watering our grass). In north Texas, we have been put under Stage II water restrictions. We believe in abiding by the law generally, but our realization has been supported by the threat of criminal penalties if we fail to comply. We have also been very willing to conserve water (at least outdoors) because it is expensive every time we run the sprinklers! That realization preceded the orders from our area Water Conservation District.

Second, that thought of moving to another area that doesn't have problems is always an enticing one! We have had that thought for economic reasons (I am a teacher in an area public school system) and being a teacher in Texas is a somewhat rough proposition these days). However, I foresee, as you do, that if we were to move to another state, we would just be creating more demands somewhere else!

Jennifer Henson said

at 3:09 pm on Oct 23, 2011

This is info from a chemical company--includes R&D ideas for developing more efficient crops to support growing human populations. I don't know how reliable this information is, as they clearly have an agenda.


Jennifer Henson said

at 3:44 pm on Oct 23, 2011

Living smack-dab in Texas--part of the area that could become a dustbowl--I've long heard farmers and ranchers staunchly defend their right to do what they want to do with their land and with the water under it. It's typical "Tragedy of the Commons" behavior that could be the end of the Ogalalla. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tragedy_of_the_commons This is a VERY difficult situation we're talking about, and I'm not convinced current government effort will resolve it. I would like to hear from those of you who live or have lived in the high-crop-producing coastal area of Texas whether there is much talk these days about Sustainable Farming. I'm seeing a lot more of it in the Austin area, but Austin has never been typical for Texas.

Previous User said

at 4:11 pm on Oct 23, 2011

During the research I read a report that talked about the biotechnology water conservation policy, which would be a voluntary incentive-based policy that encourages landowners to adopt more water-efficient crop varieties. Maybe this would help in their willingness to make changes in their water use, since at this point their is no incentives for farmers to decrease water use.

Previous User said

at 4:28 pm on Oct 23, 2011

I also came across reports that stated of current research on engineering drought tolerant seeds. This would definitely reduce water use, but how there's always the question of how genetically modified food affects us. http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/genetically_modified_foods?open, http://www.actionbioscience.org/biotech/sakko.html

Sharon Dressel said

at 5:05 pm on Oct 23, 2011

Cloud seeding, while not necessarily highly accurate, is a possible solution. Information from meteorologist David Moran and Weather Design Technologies at http://www.wdtinc.com/posts/2011/8/18/could_cloud_seeding_help_drought_stricken_areas .

Sharon Dressel said

at 5:54 pm on Oct 23, 2011

Farmers can also be choosier about the crops they select. Some farmers, like the one cited in the UK Daily Telegraph article, have chosen to go with cotton and sorghum, which (according to the article) "produce oil" and take less water. The days of huge cattle runs with watering holes aplenty are gone. Towns like Happy, Texas (a misnomer now if ever I saw one) have become ghost towns. This appears to be the wave of the future unless farmers become more educated and more selective.

Sharon Dressel said

at 5:57 pm on Oct 23, 2011

Also cited in the Telegraph article: New, smarter ways of planting crops to maximize irrigation are also a possible way to conserve water usage. The deal with all these alternatives is that more than just one or a few people need to buy in to the solutions. If they don't, they are just part of the problem, and we'll just keep hurtling toward our inevitable doom.

Jennifer Henson said

at 8:21 pm on Oct 23, 2011

Interesting! Thanks for your great comments. Given me some stuff to think about, for sure!

Ray Slapkunas said

at 8:36 am on Oct 24, 2011

How are water restrictions really regulated? Do water companies check water usage at key times? I know when I visited family this past summer in San Antonio they said people could only hand water their lawns at certain periods on certain days. Not only did I see people watering on off days but when they were watering, some people would literally be out there for hours. I think in the long run they end up using the same amont of water as a sprinkler system would. I don't know if there truly is a way to keep everyone honest but it's something to consider.

Ray Slapkunas said

at 8:41 am on Oct 24, 2011

I remember when China hosted the Olympics, I remember they talked about cloud seeding. I know they have toyed with the idea in Texas for the Edwards Aquifer, but not sure how serious research has been lately.


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